A ghost at the feast: Platini to address Uefa election

Slovenia’s Ceferin is tipped to be Platini’s successor but little is known about him

To some, he will resemble a ghost at the feast – a reminder to football's twisted and dysfunctional family of the sins of their fathers. But for many more of the delegates from Uefa's 55 members gathered to elect their next president at the Astir Palace Beach Resort in Athens, the surprise address from Michel Platini will be warmly welcomed.

Ever since the three-times world footballer of the year became embroiled in a Byzantine scandal concerning a £1.35 million (€1.59m) “disloyal payment” from the similarly disgraced Fifa president Sepp Blatter, many in Europe have remained loyal to their former leader.

Just as the collapse of global football governance does not seem to have dented the desire of its power brokers to meet in luxurious surroundings (the venue for their congress nestles in “75 acres of sun-drenched gardens on a pine-dotted private peninsula” according to its website), so the election to decide Platini’s successor seems to have heralded a return to business as usual.

So it is that an election that has boiled down to two candidates – the little known but hotly tipped Slovenian Aleksander Ceferin and the veteran former Dutch FA chief Michael van Praag – has taken place largely in the shadows.

Bizarrely, despite his ban from all football-related activities (reduced to four years on appeal), Platini has been given a dispensation on “humanitarian grounds” to address the congress.

Given Platini referred to himself in an interview last year as an Icarus-like figure, there is a certain poetic justice in his Greek tragedy coming full circle in Athens. The suspicion of some of those supportive of Van Praag, the capable administrator who failed in a bid to challenge Blatter earlier this year and threw his weight behind the similarly doomed Prince Ali of Jordan, is that the Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, may have had some influence in the decision to allow Platini to speak. As outlined in an excellent, lengthy summary on the Two Hundred Percent website, the latter stages of the campaign have been studded by the usual wearying claims of backroom dealing.

Lobbying

Ceferin, a 48-year-old lawyer who has been president of the Slovenia FA since 2011, is said to enjoy the backing of Infantino, who until he was unexpectedly pitched into the Fifa race was Uefa’s secretary-general.

The Fifa president was alleged by the Dutch newspaper De Volksrant to have sent an adviser to a meeting of northern European FAs to lobby on Ceferin's behalf before the Champions League final on 28 May. Ceferin had been invited to the meeting to discuss his plans for his prospective candidacy. Before Ceferin had even announced his campaign, the Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish FAs had come out in favour of his candidacy.

The adviser sent to the May meeting was the Norwegian FA’s secretary-general, Kjetil Siem, who was announced as Infantino’s “director of strategic affairs” on May 18th. Fifa said Siem was still working for the Norwegian FA at the time of the meeting.

An investigation by the Norwegian football magazine Josimar detailed allegations that Siem worked to gather votes for Ceferin and in return promised seats on Uefa's board and favourable consideration for tournament bids. Ceferin angrily called the claims "almost completely not true" and said it was "a lie" Siem had pledged Infantino's support.

Ceferin is the favourite, with the confirmed support of at least 17 smaller nations as well as France, Germany and – perhaps crucially – Russia. In total, as many as 35 federations are believed to have declared support for Ceferin. Like Blatter, he has pursued a strategy of positioning himself as the man who will stand up for the little guys. In a one-member, one-vote election it is a sensible move. Safe in the knowledge the recent Champions League deal that favoured bigger European clubs in order to head off breakaway threats cannot be unpicked, Ceferin can now afford to say he will stand up for smaller countries in future.

“Those changes are clearly not in favour of small and mid-sized associations,” he said. “The process was not good. The clubs didn’t know anything about it and that should be changed in the future.”

Beyond the bare bones of his CV, little is known about Ceferin. In many ways he appears similar to Infantino – a plausible, multi-lingual lawyer with a smooth manner. That is less of a compliment than it once may have appeared in light of Infantino’s increasingly egocentric approach to the huge challenges at Fifa.

Final humiliation

Those with a glass-half-full mentality may harbour hopes a new man atop European football with an avowed mission to level the playing field could be a positive force. Those who have grown cynical watching the machinations at Fifa and Uefa down the years are instead wondering who is really pulling the strings. Even they, however, take some comfort from the fact the veteran Spanish Fifa executive committee member Ángel María Villar Llona was forced to withdraw owing to lack of support.

It was Villar Llona who was investigated in connection with an alleged vote-swapping deal with Qatar during the tainted 2018-22 World Cup bidding process, before trying to shut down Michael Garcia’s investigation. His withdrawal was one final humiliation for the old guard.

Yet the machine has rolled on and behind the politicking the popularity of modern football means the cash continues to roll in as never before.

The Football Association of Ireland has thrown its backing behind Ceferin. "He has been a very progressive and extremely innovative leader in his native Slovenia and his successful candidacy would be a very positive move for European football and the administration as a whole," said the chief executive, John Delaney.

For those who hoped the lurid collapse of Fifa would herald a new age, the recent manoeuvrings have been a depressing reminder that the more things change, the more they appear to stay the same.